Our guide to the town of Armero lost both sets of his grandparents that tragic night of November 13, 1985. Now in his 40’s he recalled the events of the evening from his perspective. “My parents and I lived in Bogota. I remember them on the phone with my grandparents in the night. My grandfather asked if there was any news in the capital about Armero. The ground had been shaking but no one in Armero knew anything. The line then went dead and my parents could not reach anyone after that. The next morning one of my uncles with a pilot’s license rented a plane to fly there. He called back and told my parents the town was gone. My father asked him what he meant by gone. The people just were not there? My uncle explained that everything was gone. There were no houses or buildings standing. The town of over 22,000 people just disappeared.”
Imagine a wall of wet concrete possibly 10 stories high coming at you with a velocity of over 40 miles per hour. It just keeps coming carrying within its thickness several boulders the size of small cars. This is the basic idea of the lahar that hit the Colombian town that night.
The definition of a lahar is a violent type of mudflow or debris flow composed of a slurry of pyroclastic material, rocky debris and water. Rather meaning a volcano has a small eruption which melts all the snow around it and the combination of material flows down from the volcano, typically along a river valley.
What had happened is that the volcano Nevado del Ruiz, about 30 miles (48 kilometers)away from Armero and at over 17,000 feet above sea level, erupted. The volcano previously spewed lava in 1595 and 1845 killing 636 and 1,000 people. This time almost the entire town of over 20,000 people were wiped out. The lahar left mud up to 15 feet deep covering the place. The steeple of the church was found about a mile away. Inside city center only the walls of the bank vault survived.
It proved impossible to find bodies. Our guide told us that they just put the headstones on the properties where the people’s houses once stood.
What really made the world news at the time was finding one little 13 year-old girl still alive. However, Omayra Sánchez Garzón, was trapped in the mud. The story to rescue her seemed to be another of indecision and incompetence. She died after surviving 60 hours trapped.
In a BBC report and first person account by Frank Fournier they wrote: “Red Cross rescue workers had apparently repeatedly appealed to the government for a pump to lower the water level and for other help to free the girl. Finally rescuers gave up and spent their remaining time with her, comforting her and praying with her. She died of exposure after about 60 hours.”
Could the tragedy have been prevented?
Makes perfect sense that with the history and modern detection equipment available that the lives could have been saved. But there seemed to be a combination of events,errors and beliefs that prevented proper action.
The government seemed busy with a more pressing matter. Just a week before a group invaded the Palace of Justice and took Supreme Court judges hostage. It ended with the military storming the place and many deaths as well as disappearances. Their concern seemed focused on terrorists.
Volcanologists were a little gun shy. Years before scientific evidence pointed to a volcanic eruption of La Soufrière Volcano on the island of Guadeloupe. The island was evacuated to the tune of millions of dollars, but the volcano never totally erupted. Therefore many were not willing to put their name on a possibility of it happening in Colombia.
There were no competent operators of the instruments to detect an eruption. Seismographs were sent to Colombia. But no one knew how to operate and read the machines, so they just went unused.
A hazard map had been prepared showing that Armero was in danger. Not only were there errors in the map but business interests did their best to persuade people against leaving.
Then there was the “God will save you crowd.” More than one Colombian told me that the priest of Armero kept preaching to the people that they were good people and that God would spare them. According to some telling me the story the priest got in his car the night of the event and drove away before the lahar hit. The story continues that years later survivors of the town found the man in another country and almost beat him to death.
Can it happen again?
Scientists say that if a future lahar takes a different path there can be as many as a half-million citizens at risk. When speaking to Colombians there seems to be two groups. One focuses on the scientific side believing that detection equipment has gotten better. And from that there may be more warning. Others focus on the government side of the equation. They say not much has changed. Methods of notifying the people rely on antiquated systems. Emergency and evacuation plans are inadequate. They believe it is easy for another tragedy to happen. The end result will be politicians and government officials just pointing fingers.
For now there will be no more building in Armero. Pope John Paul II is said to have declared the area “Holy Land.”